05/23/2013 2:09PM

Weekend Warrior for May 25: Picks for Sheepshead Bay, Arlington Classic, Louisville Handicap

Coady Photography/Keeneland
Strathnaver is looking to make it 3 for 3 in the United States.

NEW YORK – Memorial Day Weekend kicks off with a Saturday stakes schedule that focuses primarily on turf. The day’s two Grade 2 events – the $200,000 Sheepshead Bay at Belmont Park and the $150,000 American Handicap at Betfair Hollywood Park – are scheduled to be run on the grass. So, too, are the Grade 3, $100,000 Louisville Handicap at Churchill Downs, and the Grade 3, $150,000 Arlington Classic at Arlington. The Arlington Classic is part of a Grade 3 stakes tripleheader at that Chicago-area track. The Arlington Matron and the Hanshin Cup, which are also worth $150,000 each, will be run on Arlington’s Polytrack.

Sheepshead Bay Stakes

Weather promises to have a major impact on this race. According to the National Weather Service, heavy rain and thunderstorms are possible on western Long Island from Thursday afternoon through Friday, with showers remaining in the area at least through Saturday. These days, the New York Racing Association keeps races on turf whenever possible. So in operating under the assumption that this event will remain on the grass, it is imperative to factor in deep footing in your handicapping.

Deep turf will help Starformer. She upset the Long Island Handicap three starts back and won the The Very One two starts back on off turf. Starformer, however, was allowed to set an extraordinarily slow pace in the Long Island, and I have doubts about the quality of the field she beat in the The Very One. Starformer might be at home on soft turf, but I question whether she is good enough.

Mystical Star would not be at a disadvantage over off going. She narrowly missed to Starformer in the Long Island when she was compromised by the slow pace, and she was about 10 miles the best in this race last year on a good course, finishing a close third after a disastrous start that cost her anywhere from eight to 12 lengths. But Mystical Star’s two efforts this year were not among her best, and she seems below the sharp form she was in this time last season.

Hessonite relishes off turf and has evolved into a monster who is way too good now to remain in New York-bred competition. Hessonite was most impressive winning the Beaugay stakes three weeks ago in her return from a six-month layoff. She was completely bottled up on the inside in the stretch, was steadied and sharply angled out for racing room, and then inhaled her field with an eye-catching burst of speed while barely being asked to run.

The question for Hessonite Saturday is not whether she’s good enough (she is), it’s the 11-furlong distance. The only time in her career that Hessonite went farther than a middle distance was in the 10-furlong, Grade 1 Flower Bowl last fall. Hessonite was in with some heavy heads (runner-up Zagora came back to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf and was voted last year’s champion turf female), and she was stopped cold on the inside at the top of the stretch, so her fifth-place finish is inconclusive. If Hessonite were to be a good price Saturday, then the risk that she could handle the added distance would be one worth taking. But as the probable favorite, it’s not.

I like Strathnaver, who is looking to make it 3 for 3 here in the United States. Strathnaver’s 18-1 upset of the 12-furlong Bewitch most recently was especially good considering that she wound up going extremely wide late on the far turn, while Regalo Mia, who was coming off solid wins in the Orchid and Sunshine Millions Turf, got through on the inside. Despite that significant disparity in ground loss, Strathnaver still caught Regalo Mia and proved decisively best. And with six starts on turf in England earlier in her career, Strathnaver should not be out of her element on deep ground.

Arlington Classic

There are two ways to look at Fordubai here. One is to say that his second in the Illinois Derby last time out proves he is a far better horse now than the one who got his maiden win on the turf last fall and will be doubly tough in his return to grass on Saturday. The other is to say that even though Fordubai got his maiden win on turf, dirt is the surface on which he’s proven best. That’s the direction I’m leaning in.

Procurement’s dominant win in the La Puente most recently and Admiral Kitten’s second to the high-class Noble Tune last time in the American Turf make them obvious contenders. But I’m a little reserved about Procurement, because he victimized a small field last time, and I believe Noble Tune was way more dominant over Admiral Kitten than it looks on paper.

Brown Almighty is my play. Brown Almighty didn’t run great when he was fourth in the Transylvania last time out, but it was a much improved effort in his return to turf, the surface he never should have left. Last year on grass, Brown Almighty was moved up to second in the Bourbon Stakes after a rough trip, and before that, he lost a close one to Grade 1 winner Java’s War in the Sunday Silence. Brown Almighty earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 82 for that performance. That suggests to me that as a more mature 3-year-old, he has got a significant move forward in him, and I think it will happen now that he’s back on his preferred footing.

Louisville Handicap

Dark Cove ran away with the 12-furlong Elkhorn most recently and returns at the same distance here. But I think the time to have Dark Cove was last time at nearly 9-1, not this time when he might be less than a third of the price. And Harrods Creek is logical, too. But I’m not comfortable taking a horse going this far off a layoff of nearly 10 months, even one trained by Bill Mott.

I’m going with Atigun, who ran well winning a middle-distance turf race last time on the Kentucky Derby undercard. Being by a son of Gone West, from a Dynaformer mare, Atigun has a license to be a turf horse. And respectable thirds last year in the Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Marathon suggest he will love the added distance he gets Saturday.